Choosing A Path Less Travelled (Part 1)



Epoch Times, Singapore Edition (Issue 502, 9 Jan – 22 Jan, 2015)

By Li Yen
Epoch Times Staff

Parents play an important role in a child’s life, especially in terms of his socialisation and development. This seems to be true for violinist Alan Choo, whose love for music was nurtured and inspired mostly by his father. His father, who is a doctor, encouraged him to take up the violin seriously at the age of 13.

Surrounded by music during his childhood days, Choo remembers his parents playing a recording of Corelli’s violin sonata and his father playing the piano. Whenever his father performed a tune, he would be asked to dance and sing along to it.

Choo had a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. His adventurous streak might be the reason that propelled him to be a violinist – a path less travelled – instead of settling for a mainstream job.

Named one of “classical music’s new crop of rising stars” by The Straits Times, the 24-year-old is one of only a few Singaporean violinists pursuing baroque violin performance. Choo is keen on historical performance and has loved playing Baroque music since young. An exuberant and intricate style of European classical music, the Baroque period (1600 –1750) marked a rich era of outstanding musical innovations, with J.S. Bach as one of the more popularly known Baroque composers today.

At the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Choo started taking classes in Early Music on top of playing the baroque violin. Baroque violins are fitted with gut strings rather than the metal and synthetic strings commonly used on today’s modern instruments, which results in a warmer and natural sound with a sweet sharpness.

“Being able to perform baroque music on original authentic instruments and learn about the musical style is something very intriguing to me,” shares Choo.

According to Choo, a musician’s journey is a difficult one filled with setbacks and disappointments, and it is common to harbour thoughts of giving up. But earning the honourable Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award in 2014 and winning the 2011 Singapore’s National Piano and Violin Competition in the Artist Category have given him motivation to carry on this arduous journey.

The late Goh Soon Tioe is one of Singapore’s significant musician pioneers, and Choo is the first Singaporean to receive the 1st prize of the National Piano and Violin Competition since 2003.

“I have persevered through some difficult times and I see these awards as a confirmation of my efforts, as well as strong motivation to continue striving for excellence in my skills and musicianship,” he says.

When did your love for music start? When did you realise that you want to be a violinist?
My love for music was nurtured and inspired mainly by my father. When I was growing up, there was always music in the house – he would be playing the piano and asking me to sing or even dance to the music. At the age of six, he asked if I wanted to learn the violin or the piano and I chose the violin.

In the beginning, my father had to enforce strict rules on practising, but after a while I discovered that I grew to love playing the violin and wanted to do it even when I was not asked to. That was when I discovered I really loved music and at about the age of 13, also under the encouragement of my parents, I started to take the violin more seriously and started to dream of being a violinist.

You wanted to be an astronaut when you were young. Tell us about your childhood dream. Are you comfortable about not going for an ordinary job?
Hahahaha…that was a very childish dream of mine. I believe I just saw some cartoons and documentaries of Outer Space and thought it would be so cool to be able to experience adventures in Outer Space some day. Actually I still think it is!

Thinking back, I realised that this shows some of my personality traits from a young age: I loved adventures and exploring life. I liked to do things that were out of the ordinary. So it was not surprising that I later chose to take a path less travelled and make a career out of being a violinist and musician.

In your opinion, why do you think music is important for mankind?
I think music, like many other art forms, helps us discover what it means to be human. To be human is to experience emotions and feelings, and music helps us express them. It is the simplest way people know how to express themselves – almost every culture has their own folk songs and dances. It helps us bring out the beauty and meaning of even the smallest things in life, and thus helps us appreciate them. It helps with easing the grief which we inevitably
experience in life. It helps embody the spirit of a group of people, or of mankind as a whole, and has the ability to stir feelings and motivate people towards a certain goal. It is something so intangible, yet so powerful.

You have completed two Master’s degrees in Violin Performance and Early Music at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Tell us more about your school life. How have the teachings of pedagogue Victor Danchenko and Risa Browder molded you?
I love my overseas experience here at Peabody. Peabody has a rich history and has some of the world’s most accomplished musicians and pedagogues to learn from. There are many interesting departments such as Jazz, Opera and Early Music which all students can experiment and learn from, and in following my childhood love for baroque music, I started to take a lot of classes in Early Music and learn to
play the baroque violin.

Being able to perform baroque music on original authentic instruments and learn about the musical style is something very intriguing to me, and thus in my second year of my Master’s in Violin Performance, I decided to also concurrently pursue a Master’s in Early Music to supplement my education and qualifications. Both teachers have been instrumental to my development.

Mr Danchenko is a major figure in the violin world, having studied with the legendary David Oistrakh and having produced some of the world’s top violinists in his teaching career. Not only has he taught me so much on playing the violin and performing, he has also inspired me so much by his sheer love for music. He is a true artist who lives for his art and I aspire to be like him one day.

Risa Browder has also given me the most excellent guidance. She taught me how to play the baroque violin from scratch all the way to my Master’s recital just three years later. She has also been most encouraging and is a motherly figure to me at Peabody.

You won the Goh Soon Tioe Centenary Award in 2014 and were the First Prize Winner at the biennial National Piano and Violin Competition Singapore 2011. How did it feel winning these awards?
I feel extremely honoured and gratified to have received both awards. A musician’s journey in honing their craft is a difficult one, filled with setbacks and disappointments, and it is not uncommon at all to harbour thoughts of giving up along the way. I have persevered through some difficult times and I see these awards as a confirmation of my efforts, as well as strong motivation to continue striving for excellence in my skills and musicianship.

You have performed in concerts and attended music festivals in various countries. Has travelling changed your perspective on life?
Travelling definitely played a huge part in my development as a musician. In recent years, I have performed with the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in a historical palace in St Petersburg, performed Benjamin Britten’s Second String Quartet in the very town where he lived and worked in Aldeburgh, UK, and worked with members of the Emerson and Tokyo String Quartets at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in Connecticut, USA. Immersing yourself in different environments, getting close to the origins of the music, meeting and interacting with world-class artists…these are just some of the benefits of doing music festivals in various countries and it has definitely broadened my horizons so much. As a result, it has also inspired and
improved my music.

What is your approach to performing onstage?
People come for live performances instead of listening to a recording for the “live” element – which is for the performer to engage with the audience there and then, and for both parties to feel that special connection. Feeling that connection is one of the greatest pleasures of performing, and I aim to attain that every single time I perform.

Every talented violinist needs a worthy instrument. Can you tell us about your violin and what it means to you?
My violin is a 1850 V. Postiglione on generous loan to me from The Rin Collection, Singapore. It has a powerful, projecting tone and is capable of producing an array of tonal colours. I have used it for seven years now and have a special connection with it. I am very grateful to Mr and Mrs Rin Kei Mei for this wonderful instrument and I treasure it greatly.

(This is Part 1 of Alan Choo’s interview. Part 2 will be continued in the next issue. For more information about Alan Choo, visit his website at http://www.violinistalan. com.)

This Is Singapore is a fortnightly feature that delves into the life of an inspiring and talented individual in Singapore. Read all our interviews here:

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